Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Halfway done...

This weekend marked the midpoint of my eight week program in China, as well as our long-weekend trip to Xi'an, one of China's many former capital cities.. We left on Friday evening, taking a ten-hour overnight express train and arriving in Xi'an in the morning. The train ride was really comfortable and pleasant, since we were in a sleeping car. I talked a little bit with the Chinese student with whom I was sharing a room. He told me he came from a poor village, and he was now studying electrical engineering. When I asked him what he planned to do after college, he said that he was going into the military, making a gun with his hands so I would understand. Since his education had been free, he had to work in the military for ten years after graduation. He didn't seem too thrilled about the prospect, but I respected his desire to improve the life of his family back in their village.

Once we got to Xi'an, we toured around checking out the main tourist attractions, such as the old city wall, Wild Goose Pagoda, and of course the terra-cotta army built by China's first emperor Qin Shihuang. Most of the supposedly ancient tourist attractions in China have a strangely modern feel to them. Most buildings seem to have been originally made of wood, so the originals decayed and they have since been replaced by reconstructions. The fresh red paint and redecorated interiors make them feel more like an amusement park than a historical site. On the one hand, I suppose they are reconstructed in a pretty realistic way, but it's really frustrating to see a plaque that says "Tang dynasty temple built in 982 A.D." when the building was clearly built in the 1950s. My favorite of the things we saw were some Han dynasty tombs. They had little naked terra-cotta figures in them, including men, women, and animals. The open pits with figures strewn in them had the strange feel of a mass-burial pit.

The city of Xi'an was also a pretty strange place. The central downtown area felt like Las Vegas to me, with flashing lights advertising things like KFC and KTV (the inexplicable Chinese name for karaoke; I don't think it stands for anything). There are apparently 8 million people in Xi'an, but the city just felt touristy and isolated. I guess we only saw the parts of it that our tour guide thought appropriate for us to see.

The train ride back was as much fun as the one there (honestly I felt the trains were the best part of the trip, but maybe that's just my love of transportation; accordingly I include a photo of two of my teachers and one of my friends on the train), and I'm feeling pretty refreshed and relatively studious. Today was probably the clearest day we've had since I got here due to the thunderstorm last night, and I took advantage of the occasion to go up the CCTV tower, which provided an amazing view of Beijing. The city is so spread out that I didn't quite get a sense of how huge it is until today.

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